Book Reviews

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York

In her exquisite and long-awaited fourth novel, The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard delivers a sublime and unexpectedly daring paean to the redemptive power of love amidst the physical and moral exhaustion of the postwar world.

Set mostly in Japan and Hong Kong shortly after the end of the Second World War, Hazzard’s story is of the intertwined lives of Major Aldred Leith and his friend, Peter Exley. Leith is a wounded English war hero who has come to Japan to study the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima after an overland trek through revolutionary China. Exley is an Australian expatriate, attorney, and art historian who is stationed in Hong Kong to help with the prosecution of war criminals.

The pair shares a deep and emotionally complicated sense of obligation to each other — Leith saved Exley’s life during the war. Now in their early 30s, they also share a common quest: to rebuild their lives after the devastation of war and to resist the diminution of their wartime experiences to meaningless bureaucratic routine, colonial provincialism, and settled convention. Exley chooses an honorable, overly idealistic path that ultimately proves frustrating and fruitless. Leith, the novel’s true hero, engages in a more personal journey.

In Japan, Leith becomes friendly with the almost ethereal children of the ambitious, narrow-minded British martinet who serves as the local medical administrator. Benedict Driscoll is an intellectually precocious 20-year-old who suffers from a fatal degenerative disease. Helen, Benedict’s doting 17-year-old sister, is as precocious and endearing as her brother. The friendship among Leith, Benedict, and Helen offers each a special kind of regeneration. Encouraged and abetted by Ben, Leith and Helen gradually fall in love. Through Hazzard’s magnificent depictions of the reluctant evolution of this love, Helen’s parents’ ham-handed intervention, and the pained, determined letters that pass between the separated lovers, The Great Fire takes wing and soars.

The thrill of The Great Fire lies not just in the grandeur of its story of a forbidden but fated love, but also in the manner of its telling. Hazzard’s prose is elliptical, allusive, and elusive. Her masterful, fragmentary sentences move the story forward by breathtaking, inferential leaps and bounds. Her paragraphs brim with provocative but casual-seeming insight. The strobelike flashes from The Great Fire‘s grandest passages cast a searching light among the flitting shadows of the dying colonial order. And they illuminate the magnificent, life-sustaining force of one human’s love for another, which, one must believe, is Shirley Hazzard’s faith and hope for the world.

Reviewed by Alden Mudge